By Joe Bavier
ABIDJAN (Reuters) - As the afternoon sun glinted off the waters in Ivory Coast's port of Abidjan, a team of gendarmes set out in a leaky wooden pirogue with no weapons and nothing more than mobile phones for communication.
Their mission: to hold the front line against piracy in the world's new hotspot for maritime crime, the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of West Africa.
"This is how we work every day," grumbled one man as their outboard motor sputtered out, setting them adrift amid bobbing plastic bottles. "We don't even have life vests."
Until recently, Ivory Coast's maritime surveillance brigade - the equivalent of a coastguard - managed, barely, to keep a lid on crime in the waters around one of Africa's busiest ports.
But ruthless Nigerian gangs, which have expanded hundreds of miles beyond their home waters in the last three years, reached francophone West Africa's largest economy in October.
Born of an uprising in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta, which spawned a web of criminal networks, the gangs now threaten to derail the development of one of the world's poorest regions as the Gulf of Guinea seeks to become a major oil and gas hub.
The start-up of large oil fields in Ghana, and promising discoveries to the west in neighboring Ivory Coast, have helped to stoke interest in the region from international oil firms.
The spike in attacks is alarming Western powers, not least the United States, as regional governments struggle to cope.
In 2010, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), which has monitored global piracy since 1991, recorded 33 attacks in the Gulf of Guinea. Last year, that figure jumped to 58.
Analysts say widespread under-reporting means the figure reflects just a fraction of the total, as there is little hope of rescue and reporting attacks bumps up insurance premiums.
"We estimate there is about one attempted or actual pirate attack a day ... with the chance of it going to almost two a day if present trends continue," said Michael Frodl, head of U.S.-based consultancy C-Level Maritime Risks.
Pirates' use of rocket-propelled grenades to halt ships leave Ivory Coast's police feeling helplessly outgunned.
"It would be a slaughter ... What can we do against that?" said Captain Augustin Dago, the man tasked with leading the maritime surveillance brigade. "We're just hoping it doesn't get any worse: that what's happening off Somalia doesn't come to Ivory Coast."
After eight years and nearly 150 hijackings, Somali pirates' stranglehold over East Africa's busy shipping lanes, which the World Bank says may cost the global economy $18 billion a year, is now being brought under control.
Armed attacks, once counted in the hundreds, fell to 75 in 2012, according to the IMB. Somali pirates have succeeded in seizing just one vessel off the Horn of Africa so far this year.
The world's mightiest navies and security firms hired by shipping companies were given a free hand off Somalia and their robust tactics are credited with stamping out piracy there.
"Whereas in Somalia, we faced an absence of government, in the Gulf of Guinea the exact opposite holds true," Andrew Shapiro, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, told a congressional sub-committee last month.
"There are many sovereign governments with varying degrees of capability but all with their own laws, their own interests."
For many West African governments, suspicious of foreign meddling, a massive influx of warships is a non-starter. And most regional nations - often states recovering from brutal civil wars - ban the use of weapons by private security details.
Until now, the greatest obstacle to solving the problem in the Gulf of Guinea has been a lack of interest.
"If you look at the operations in East Africa and the capacity they brought and the money they threw at it, they've not touched anything like that here," said Johan Potgieter, a researcher at Pretoria's Institute for Security Studies.
ROOTS IN NIGERIA
The United States began monitoring the gangs emerging from the Niger Delta early on and with growing concern. In 2010, Nigeria and Angola - the region's two top oil producers - accounted for nearly 15 percent of U.S. oil imports.
Styling themselves as fighters for independence, but with all the hallmarks of a criminal mafia, groups such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) had for years made big money taking oilmen hostage and bunkering - selling crude oil illegally siphoned from pipelines onto the black market.
By 2009, when Nigeria offered the militants an amnesty in a bid to end the violence that was crippling oil output, they were already extending their activities east into the waters of Cameroon.
In the gangs' increasing mobility, Washington saw a nascent threat to the Gulf of Guinea's host of oil discoveries.
"We've got blocks in Ghana. We're looking at exploration in Ivory Coast. They've talked about discoveries off Liberia, prospects for Guinea, even Senegal," said U.S. Ambassador to Ivory Coast Phillip Carter. "Piracy goes where the money is."
Some 26,000 militants accepted Nigeria's amnesty offer. However, many gangs simply reconfigured their operations and pushed westward as the United States had feared.
They struck first off Benin which, having reported just one attack in the four previous years, saw 20 ships raided and eight hijacked in 2011, according to IMB figures. Most of the attacks hit fuel tankers, the gangs' new target of choice.
With one of the world's biggest black markets for fuel - a by-product of subsidy scams that cost Nigeria $6.8 billion over three years - pirates found a ready-made market for cargoes.
"Nigerian pirates can make in 10 days what Somalis make in 10 months," Frodl said. "It's easier to offload oil to the local black market than negotiate ransom with foreign ship owners."
DIRE ECONOMIC CONSEQUENCES
After Benin, pirates stepped up attacks further along the coast in Togo, before heading to Ivory Coast - the Gulf of Guinea's second-largest fuel refiner after Nigeria.
Just before midnight on October 5, pirates armed with AK-47s and knives boarded a gasoline tanker named the Orfeas as it lay at anchor in sight of the bright lights of the Abidjan skyline.
After subduing the 24-man crew and smashing communications equipment, they sailed 650 nautical miles to a rendezvous point off Nigeria where they stole as much of the cargo as they could.
In all, the operation took four days but the pirates knew there was almost no chance of being caught. Ivory Coast did not possess a single vessel capable of patrolling on the open sea.
"They're here because there's no-one here to stop them," one Western security official told Reuters. "The number of attacks is reaching a tipping point ... If this law enforcement problem is left unchecked, it will have economic consequences."
Piracy's impact on West Africa's import-dependent economies, some of the world's poorest, could dwarf that in East Africa.
Hikes in insurance premiums after attacks off Benin in 2011 led to a 70 percent drop in traffic to Cotonou port, Defence Minister Issifou Kogui N'Douro told the U.N. Security Council.
Port fees and customs duties are an essential source of revenues for the region's coastal nations. In Benin, they provide half of government receipts, according to the World Bank, and 80 percent of these come from Cotonou's port.
Any increase in shipping costs due to insurance premiums or onboard security also adds to the price of everything from milk to auto parts in landlocked Mali and Burkina Faso.
The United States has helped train and equip Nigeria's navy - the region's dominant seagoing force - in an effort to give it the tools to clamp down on the threat emanating from its waters.
But U.S. oil imports from West Africa have more than halved since 2010 due to a boom in cheap, domestic shale oil. And Washington's military budget is under increasing strain.
Asia, particularly China, is buying more and more West African oil but has yet to take up the baton on piracy.
"The big concern is how does one address this?" Ambassador Carter said. "It's not a question of building up strong individual navies ... It has to be a regional effort."
That effort is now beginning.
After the pirates invaded Benin's waters in 2011, President Thomas Boni Yayi asked Nigeria's navy for help and the resulting joint patrols quickly reduced the number of attacks there.
The European Union is funding the training of seven coastguards in the region.
And a new code of conduct for the countries of West and Central Africa, drafted with the help of the U.S. military, calls upon governments to work together to dismantle onshore bases and impound ships believed to be used in maritime crime.
The document, described by the western security source as a "game changer", is due to be approved by heads of state at a summit in Cameroon next month.
Captain Dago says his brigade is due to receive three new American Defender launches next year and will finally be able to patrol outside Abidjan's lagoon.
"Sometimes tragedy can be a good thing," he says. "These incidents made the country and the international community see a dangerous phenomenon is coming. That's what's giving us hope."
(Additional reporting by Tim Cocks in Lagos and Jonathan Saul in London; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Giles Elgood)